European leaders will sit down with President Donald Trump at the NATO summit in Brussels on Thursday. [5/25] High on the agenda will be how the new US administration and its European partners cooperate on counterterrorism. That conversation should include how to ensure that torture has no place in counterterrorism efforts.
The NATO treaty played a little-known role in the dark history of post-9/11 US-Europe counterterrorism cooperation that permitted CIA secret detention and torture on European soil.
The day after the attacks of 11 September 2001, the Bush administration invoked the “collective self-defence” clause in Article 5 of the NATO Treaty. Within a month, Europe’s leaders had agreed to give the US military and intelligence agencies “blanket overflight clearance” and unlimited use of airports for refuelling.
A Swiss senator who later investigated the programme for the Council of Europe was never allowed to see that agreement, but he concluded that Europe’s approach had been “permissive” and that the arrangement facilitated CIA covert operations.
Why bring all this up now? We are now in a world in which European leaders have to talk about a shared approach to counterterrorism policy with a US president who promised during his election campaign to bring back “waterboarding” and “a helluva lot worse.”
Had there been full accountability for Europe’s role in CIA torture, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But there hasn’t. In addition to coming clean, European states that were involved in abuses should say clearly: we will not allow torture again. We won’t allow it on our soil, and we will work to prevent it elsewhere.
The European Court of Human Rights has found in a series of cases—involving Macedonia, Italy and Poland—that European intelligence agents enabled the CIA to abduct national security suspects from Europe, and bundle them onto aircraft to be tortured elsewhere, or to fly detainees captured elsewhere to secret detention centres set up in Europe where they were subjected to terrible, prohibited, abuse. Cases against Romania and Lithuania are still open before the court. And two UN Committees have condemned Sweden for its role in the rendition of two Egyptian asylum-seekers in 2001.
The European governments involved have done little or nothing to hold those responsible to account.
Italy has gone furthest, convicting Italian and US agents, the latter in absentia, for kidnapping a man who was sent to Egypt and tortured, but some of those deemed criminally responsible have since received a presidential pardon. Every other criminal investigation in Europe into European complicity – in Poland, Lithuania and the UK – is stalled or has been shelved.
The UK government has shelved the work of a judicial inquiry into allegations of complicity in rendition and torture, and instead handed over the task to a parliamentary committee that lacks necessary independence.
Successive investigations into European complicity by the Council of Europe and European Parliament faced obstruction from most of the governments under investigation. None of the bilateral deals between the US and each individual European state involved in these abuses has ever seen the light of day. We still don’t know who in Europe authorised them.
Days after Trump’s inauguration, newspapers published a leaked draft Executive Order suggesting that the new US president was considering reopening the CIA’s high value detainee programme. A White House spokesman said that the draft order was “not a White House document.”
Those plans – thankfully – seem to be on the back burner. But the risk of a return to torture lingers, particularly if a new attack took place and altered the president’s thinking.
Some European leaders have already signalled that if the US resumes abusive security practices it would hurt relations. The German defence minister has stated clearly that there is “no room for torture” in US-German relations. UK Prime Minister Theresa May has said that the UK’s ability to cooperate on intelligence matters with a state that practised torture would be limited. Donald Tusk, EU Council president, listed “worrying declarations by the new American administration” as one of the key external threats to the EU.
It is vital for European leaders continue to make clear to the Trump administration that there would be negative consequences if Washington resumed secret detention, rendition and torture. Even if the goal of such a programme is to outsource torture to repressive regimes elsewhere and never touch down at a European airport, Europe’s leaders should be no less vociferous in their objection to such illegality.
NATO’s founding charter says that its members are “determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilisation of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.”
As they begin their relationship with a new US administration, European states should be clear that the shared values of the alliance preclude intelligence and security cooperation that would lead to renewed torture and secret detention. And they should come clean about their own role in CIA torture in the past.